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by Johnny D

April 12, 2018

Saturday, Justify, the most exciting sophomore racehorse in North America, grabbed the 2018 Santa Anita Derby by the throat out of the gate and didn’t let go for 1:49.72. Simultaneously, he intensified his grip on favoritism in the Kentucky Derby. Twice he repelled bids from Bolt d’Oro, a multiple Grade 1 winner and runner-up for top 2-year-old colt or gelding honors. The first came into the far turn, the second in the stretch. The latter charge was concerted but repelled convincingly as Justify extended his lead through the finish.

Since the Santa Anita Derby was merely Justify’s third career start, he understandably displayed some rough edges—like being a bit aggressive with jockey Mike Smith off the first bend. A minor bit alteration is in order to correct the issue, according to trainer Bob Baffert. The colt’s raw talent is unmistakable and impressive. If any 3-year-old can bury the 136-year-old Apollo jinx that demands no horse can win the Kentucky Derby without first racing at two, it’s him. But that doesn’t mean one ought to wager that it will happen at a short price.

To put the imposing, red son of Scat Daddy’s win in perspective it’s beneficial to recall that less than one month ago Justify’s highly-regarded-but-since-injured stablemate McKinzie battled Bolt d’Oro tooth and nail home in the San Felipe Stakes—the outcome ultimately decided in the latter’s favor by the stewards. Justify experienced no such concerns Saturday. The Santa Anita Derby fight might not have been over before it began, but it was completed soon after that.

The Santa Anita Derby was not the only major 3-year-old race on the Saturday docket. In New York, trainer Todd Pletcher added another likely Kentucky Derby starter to his contingent when Vino Rosso dismissed eight Wood foes. The winner took advantage of a lively early pace courtesy of Old Time Revival that favored his sustained running style. Enticed and Restoring Hope executed turn bids at the pacesetter and were joined by Vino Rosso late in the chase.

Vino Rossi, who had not distinguished himself this season --third in the Sam Davis and fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby— pulled even with Enticed for the lead off the turn. As he did, the son of Curlin shifted in several paths and collided twice with the favorite. After the race, stewards conducted an ‘inquiry,’ examined the incident and made no change to the original finish. Perhaps Enticed never was going to outrun Vino Rosso, but the former definitely was fouled. Based on this decision and the one on the opposite coast at Santa Anita a month earlier that altered the San Felipe finish, this long-time race observer feels he no longer can accurately predict when stewards might either punish or vindicate.

Monday morning on a broadcast of At the Races with Steve Byk, Pletcher announced riding assignments for two of his Kentucky Derby starters. Jockey John Velasquez, who recently partnered three of Pletcher’s prep-race stakes winners--Audible in the Florida Derby, Noble Indy in the Louisiana Derby and Vino Rosso in the Wood--will ride the latter in Louisville. Javier Castellano, aboard Bolt d’ Oro in his last two outings, will jump that ship to pilot Audible—a mount he is undefeated aboard in two tries. At this writing, Noble Indy, guided by Velasquez in every race but his maiden score, remains open. Tyler Gafflione did the winning honors first out.

In Kentucky, Good Magic not only redeemed his rep, dinged at Gulfstream by a disappointing third as Fountain of Youth favorite, but also soundly reminded Derby watchers that he is the reigning 2-year-old champ with designs on the 3-year-old belt. Wide throughout in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, Good Magic and jockey Jose Ortiz cruised to the lead at the top of the stretch. Flameaway, who has earned a reputation as a street fighter, again battled to the finish. While there was much to like about Good Magic’s score, he did switch back to his left lead late in the stretch. That means something or nothing. The guess in this corner is the latter. He won nicely, ears pricked.. If all goes well, May 5, under the Twin Spires, this son of Curlin will make his sixth career start at a sixth different racetrack.

This season’s crop of 3-year-olds is particularly strong. The current top five ranked Derby point earners are Good Magic, last year’s top 2-year-old colt or gelding, BC Juvenile and Blue Grass winner; Audible, winner of 4 in a row, including the Holy Bull and Xpressbet Florida Derby; Noble Indy, winner of three of four, including the Louisiana Derby; Vino Rosso, the late-developing Wood winner; and Bolt d’Oro, runner-up as top 2-year-old colt or gelding, and winner of four of six, including the Grade 1 Frontrunner.

They’re followed in the points parade by Enticed, Mendelssohn, Justify, Flameaway and Bravazo to round out the top ten. Two of those--Mendelssohn and Justify--are incredibly exciting prospects, the former coming off a crushing score in the UAE Derby. Flameaway, who’s won five of nine starts and been no worse than second in seven outings, has won on artificial, fast dirt, turf and twice over ‘off’ tracks. He’s competed exclusively in stakes races, six of them graded, since winning maiden last May at Woodbine. As the old timers might say, he’s ‘hickory!’

The next five, Promises Fulfilled, Magnum Moon, Runaway Ghost, Quip and Free Drop Billy, don’t possess the same cache as the previous 10 runners, but ‘Moon and Quip are dangerous customers. The former is unbeaten in three starts and won the Rebel last out. Like Justify, ‘Moon will attempt to fracture the Apollo curse. Quip has won three of four, including the Tampa Bay Derby. Magnum Moon and Quip are slated to meet in the Arkansas Derby Saturday. ‘Ghost won the Sunland Derby and ‘Billy just wants to avoid Sporting Chance, forever.

Rounding out the current probable Kentucky Derby starting lineup are Lone Sailor, Hofburg, Firenze Fire, Solomini and Gronkowski (the one from England, not New England). Each has had moments in the sun, but only Hofburg, second in the Xpressbet Florida Derby, holds much interest for this observer.

Of course, the starting roster is likely to change following two remaining qualifying point races Saturday: Arkansas Derby (170 points) and Lexington (34 points). Upsets in either of those will vault others into the Derby gate, while evicting current residents. And, of course, during the approximately four weeks between today and ‘They’re Off!’ in Louisville injury and illness will claim a victim or two. No matter. This is a loaded crop of Kentucky Derby candidates and this year’s winner won’t require additional justification.

Race On!